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Asus' X99 Deluxe motherboard reviewed

A premium platform for Haswell-E

At long last, Haswell-E is upon us—and it was worth the wait. Intel's latest high-end desktop processor crams up to eight cores and 16 threads into a single socket. It has enough PCIe Gen3 lanes to fuel exotic graphics configurations, and it's backed by quad channels of DDR4 memory. So, yeah, pretty awesome.

And the processor is just one part of the overall package. Haswell-E comes with a new chipset, dubbed X99, that replaces the aging X79 Express Intel has been milking since the Sandy Bridge era. This updated I/O hub brings native USB 3.0 support, provisions for next-gen storage devices, and more SATA ports than most cases have drive bays. After years of being tied to a middling chipset, Intel's premier high-end desktop CPU finally has an appropriately over-the-top companion.

Motherboard makers have readied a range of X99-based products, each one with its own blend of special herbs and spices. The first to hit our labs is Asus' X99 Deluxe.

As its name implies, the Deluxe is a decidedly premium offering. The board should start selling today for an eye-popping $399. That ain't cheap, but neither is the thousand-dollar Core i7-5960X processor that caps the Haswell-E lineup. This is Intel's high-end desktop platform, after all.

The Deluxe's black tie motif seems appropriate given the price tag. The gleaming white trim looks great against the largely blacked-out board.

Much of the white is confined to a plastic cover that stretches up the left edge. This purely cosmetic piece is secured with just a few screws, so it's easy to remove if you don't like the look. Ditching the shroud should improve airflow to the VRM heatsink lying beneath. Asus recommends installing DIMMs in the gray slots first, which ends up blocking the main inlet, leaving only the virtual hood scoop at the top.

Eight memory slots let the X99 Deluxe accommodate up to 64GB of DDR4. The slots only work with 288-pin DDR4 modules; 240-pin DDR3 sticks need not apply. Don't try to plug in an older LGA2011 CPU, either. Haswell-E uses a special "v3" version of the socket that's incompatible with previous chips.

Between the DIMM slots and VRM heatsinks, the socket is packed tighter than the front row at Lollapalooza. Slim clearances are unavoidable with this much hardware squeezed into an ATX footprint. We can't test whether every combination of components will fit, but we have taken a few key measurements that should be helpful.

Although the VRM heatsinks come closest to the socket, they're relatively short compared to some of the oversized memory modules out there. Taller DIMMs pose the biggest threat to CPU coolers that branch out from the restricted zone surrounding the socket. Most coolers should get along just fine with standard-height modules, though, and closed-loop liquid coolers should be immune to motherboard clearance issues altogether.

The PCI Express expansion slots have enough breathing room to take two triple-wide graphics cards or three double-wide ones. Only the open-ended x4 slot is linked to the Gen2 lanes in the X99 chipset. All five of the x16s have Gen3 connectivity from the CPU, whose 40 lanes can be distributed in a litany of configs, including an even spread with eight lanes per x16 slot.

That's how it works with 40-lane versions of Haswell-E, anyway. Intel's annoyingly segmented lineup also includes a 28-lane variant, the Core i7-5820K, which forces the third and fifth x16 slots to trade their Gen3 links for sluggish Gen2 x1 connections to the chipset. The remaining x16 slots retain their Gen3 connectivity, which can be distributed in x16/x0/x8 and x8/x8/x8 configurations.

Those setups only add up to 24 lanes each, leaving four lanes untapped. The remainder is reserved for PCIe SSDs plugged into the Deluxe's M.2 socket.

Most motherboards' M.2 implementations are restricted to dual Gen2 lanes from the chipset. On top of that, they're bound by limited interconnect bandwidth shared with the X99's other I/O components. The Deluxe's M.2 socket bypasses those handicaps by hooking directly into the CPU.

When installed, M.2 SSDs stick straight up instead of running parallel the PCB. The removable bracket holds drives securely, but the orientation still looks awkward. The positioning should also keep drives cooler than typical M.2 configs, though. M.2 SSDs usually hug the motherboard between expansion slots, a region that can get quite toasty with multiple power-hungry graphics cards installed. If temperatures rise high enough, they could trigger the thermal throttling mechanisms designed to keep some M.2 SSDs from overheating.

The rest of the onboard storage is split between the X99 and a collection of ASMedia controllers. The chipset supplies all the individual SATA ports in addition to the two in the top SATA Express connector. SATAe devices plugged into that port connect to the chipset via dual PCIe 2.0 lanes, much like similar implementations on Z97 boards. This "flex I/O" configuration is officially endorsed on the Z97 chipset, where connected devices are managed by Intel's Rapid Storage Technology driver. However, Intel doesn't provide any support or validation for the feature on the X99. While motherboard makers are free to use the flex I/O port for SATAe or M.2 storage, Intel warns that some RST features may not work like they do on other 9-series chipsets.

The bottom SATA Express port is tied to an ASMedia controller that can switch between SATAe and SATA modes. Another ASMedia controller powers the two USB 3.0 ports on the left side of the rear cluster. The other eight ports are driven by just two USB connections in the chipset, each of which is shared via a four-way ASMedia hub. If you want a straight line to the X99's SuperSpeed goodness, you'll have to tap one of the four ports accessible via internal headers.

The X99 Deluxe covers all the networking bases. Wired options comprise dual Gigabit Ethernet jacks fed by Intel controller chips. On the wireless front, a Broadcom adapter brings 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. The Wi-Fi is a dual-band "3T3R" implementation that Asus claims can hit speeds up to 1.3Gbps. Network traffic management software is also included in the box.

Integrated audio has become a hotbed for upgrades in recent years, and the Deluxe follows a familiar playbook. It has a high-end Realtek codec, fancy Nichicon capacitors, auxiliary amplification, extra shielding, and isolated routing for the analog traces. A couple of DTS features complete the package: DTS Ultra PC II, which enables surround sound virtualization for stereo speakers and headphones, and DTS Connect, which provides real-time encoding for multi-channel digital output.

The analog audio output sounds decent enough, with no evidence of distortion or buzzing during heavy system loads. Audiophiles or music lovers will probably want to use the digital out—or run a discrete sound card or USB DAC.

Asus peppers the X99 Deluxe with sensible extras that system assembly and maintenance much easier. There are the usual suspects, like the POST code display and onboard buttons, along with some less common touches, like the multi-GPU switch that lights up the correct PCIe x16 slots for two- and three-way setups. Port blocks simplify the wiring process for front-panel hardware, while the cushioned I/O shield ditches the annoying bits of sharp, pokey metal that line traditional I/O covers. The board also has a DirectKey header that, when connected to a typical case switch, boots the system directly into the firmware.

That's just what's on the board. Additional components lurk inside in the box.

The Hyper M.2 card is a full-sized adapter for mini SSDs. It has four lanes of bandwidth, just like the onboard slot, and it's capable of operating at Gen3 speeds.

The other item is an expansion module that bumps the number of temperature-controlled fan headers from six to nine. Along with three extra fan headers, the module sports a trio of connectors for standard temperature probes. Attached thermistors supply reference temperatures to the fan control intelligence managed by the board's firmware and utility software. We'll dive deeper into fan controls—and tackle the X99 Deluxe's tweaking options—on the next page.